Tag Archives: shale gas

Worth reminding: study established first “definitive” link to well water contamination from shale ‘fracking

shaleDavid Biello over at Scientific American had a story in 2011 that looked at research establishing a link between methane contamination in well water and nearby hydraulic fracturing of shale rock. The research came out of Duke University and was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Duke researchers analyzed water samples from 60 wells located within a kilometre of active  shale-gas drilling operations — specifically, the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. They found that “average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well” and were at levels high enough to pose “a potential explosion hazard.”

As Biello pointed out, this “marks the first time that drinking water contamination has been definitely linked to fracking.” His story, which is old but I’ve just come across, is well worth the read. He makes clear that while a small amount of methane isn’t uncommon in most aquifers in the region, the researchers were able to distinguish between “new” methane being produced by the ongoing decay of biological material and “old” methane trapped and released from fossil rock. This was done by measuring the ratio of radioactive carbon present in the methane. Very cool.



Pembina, Suzuki Foundation urge a slowdown on natural gas development, particularly shale gas

Two of Canada’s top environmental NGOs — the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation — issued a jointly prepared study today slamming our rising dependence on natural gas, warning that the fossil fuel, while generally cleaner than coal, could seriously slow down efforts to combat climate change if our increased reliance on it begins to bump renewables such as wind, solar and biomass from the future energy mix.

Natural gas is often called a “transition” fuel because it emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants than coal and is a good dance partner with renewables — that is, when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow a natural gas-fired power plant can kick in quickly to fill the gap. But beyond serving that purpose, the two organizations argue natural gas shouldn’t become the default option, especially if a rising portion of that gas is coming from shale deposits where drilling and extraction processes can affect local drinking water and lead to higher emissions compared to conventional natural gas development.

“Shale gas requires up to 100 times the number of well pads to extract the same amount of gas as conventional sources, and recent shale gas development in the U.S. has had major environmental impacts,” said Dale Marshall, climate change policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation. “Expanded natural gas production in Canada would bring a host of problems — as well as making it harder to fight climate change.”

I’ve written extensively about the environmental risks of shale-gas development, how low natural gas prices resulting from shale development are contributing to increased oil sands development, and how the physical footprint of shale gas developments should give wind NIMBYs pause for thought. I’ve also been sounding the alarm for a couple of years now on the dangers of becoming over-dependent on natural gas and how this “cleaner” fossil fuel would, with the rise of shale gas, eventually become a lightning rod in the climate-change (and water quality) debate. In my view, and to reuse one analogy I’ve used in the past, natural gas might be the “light” fossil fuel, just as you can purchase “light” cigarettes. But in the case of cigarettes, whether light or normal, they still cause cancer and heart disease, and certainly smoking twice as many light cigarettes to wean yourself off regular cigarettes will make matters worse. The point is you have to wean off all cigarettes, period. We need to treat natural gas like we treat nicotine patches and gums — something that’s used temporarily and in moderation to beat an addiction to something we know, from a health and environmental perspective, is bad for us over the long term.

Stephen Colbert gets it. (link only works for Canadians — Americans can see clip here).

Unfortunately, when Canada’s energy ministers meet next week in Alberta, I’m sure any talk of a national energy strategy will put the economy first. After all, we know asbestos causes cancer yet Quebec is permitted to continue selling the dangerous stuff to third-world countries. So will the Pembina-Suzuki report have any impact on outcomes? I doubt it. There will be welcome talk on the need to develop shale gas resources more responsibly, but the focus will be simple: let’s develop as much as possible as quickly as possible, sell it to the world, create jobs, and make a few hundred people really rich. There will be no talk of moderation, either for natural gas development or the oil sands.

That seems, these days, to be the Canadian way. Drill baby drill. Extract baby extract. Sell baby sell.

It may contaminate your well water and emit more emissions than expected, but is shale gas business also a Ponzi scheme?

The New York Times had a great piece today called “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” which quotes from among hundreds of industry e-mails and insider documents suggesting that shale gas isn’t as easy or inexpensive to extract from the ground as claimed. Some of the e-mails compare the current shale-gas lovefest to a dot-com bubble destined to burst, or to a giant Ponzi scheme because the economics don’t work. I’m sure the economics do work on a certain percentage of wells, but when companies talk generally about the productivity of shale-gas wells or the size of their reserves are they exaggerating reality? Are they pumping up their stocks and duping investors? And if so, are we grossly overestimating the true contribution — environmental problems aside — shale gas can make to our energy future?

This reminds me of some comments Jeff Rubin made during a chat we had in December. Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC World Markets and author of Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, compared the current path of the shale-gas industry to what we saw with the sub-prime mortgage market. Here’s what he had to say, taken from a Q&A that ran in the Toronto Star:

The debate is about the real cost. If you exclude the natural gas liquids that come with most shale projects, is the real cost $4 per Mcf (1,000 cubic feet) or is it $8? If the real cost is $8 then a lot of people, like Chesapeake Energy, the biggest gas producer in the U.S., have a big problem. Is shale gas the sub-prime mortgage market of the natural gas market? Is this one giant con and investors are being conned into thinking there’s a huge supply of gas at $4 when it really costs $7 or $8 to bring it to market? In the fullness of time economics will assert itself, just as it did in the sub-prime mortgage market.

The question is, when will that time come?

Worldwatch Institute reserves judgement on shale gas debate, still sees benefits of natural gas

The Worldwatch Institute just issued this statement:

Washington, DC – New analysis on the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, released from natural gas production and transport reinforces Worldwatch’s long-stated positions that the natural gas industry must be more open to effective regulation and must more effectively minimize the risk of water contamination, local environmental degradation, and air pollution, including methane leakage, associated with industry activities. The analysis does not, however, change our essential calculus that natural gas can facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy, and continues to enjoy significant advantages over coal as an energy source.
For more than a year, the Worldwatch Institute has maintained a rigorous and ongoing program – our Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative – that explores the role of natural gas in a low-carbon economy. With media attention focused on the amount of methane leakage connected to energy produced from natural gas, we wish to reiterate some key findings from our research:
Natural gas enjoys a broad set of advantages over coal in terms of its ability to partner with renewables in the transition to a low-carbon future, from its dramatically improved ability to scale up and down to meet the needs of an efficient, variable and flexible electric grid, to lower carbon footprint at the point of production.

While Worldwatch has identified greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the form of methane leakage, especially during natural gas production, as a serious concern, our analysis indicates that the problem can largely be mitigated through a combination of more effective regulation and better practices from the natural gas industry itself, both of which are essential if natural gas is to earn broad support as an alternative to aging coal plants.

There remains a need for better data on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the life cycles of both natural gas and coal. The Worldwatch Institute is currently working on a joint study to develop a rigorous and transparent life-cycle assessment of electricity generated from both natural gas and coal, using what we believe to be the best currently available data.

Recent data from the EPA suggest that it is appropriate to revise previous estimates of methane emissions upwards. Nevertheless, our preliminary analysis suggests that the best new estimates of greenhouse gases emitted during the full life-cycle of natural gas and coal do not undercut the environmental advantages of natural gas over coal. We are reserving final judgment until the conclusion of our own study.

Dirty shale gas = lower gas prices = oilsands boom = double-barrelled emissions increase

For a generation that’s supposed to start cleaning up its energy mix, I find it disturbing that the big money is flowing toward dirtier and dirtier sources instead. Take the case of shale gas, which is plentiful and now economical to develop in North America. Shale gas, at the point of combustion, is no cleaner or dirtier than conventional natural gas, and a heck of a lot better than coal.

But it’s the way we get the shale gas that’s the problem. The hydraulic fracturing process used to release methane from shale rock formations disrupts and pollutes local water tables by contaminating them with a nasty chemical cocktail. Now, as recently reported in the news (and what you’ll hear more about from me tomorrow), there’s rising concern that the methane leaks that result during shale-gas development are substantial and that this makes shale gas just as bad, or worse, than coal with respect to its climate impacts. But the picture gets a whole lot worse.

Let me explain: Because shale gas is plentiful and an increasing amount of it is filling market demand for natural gas, it has kept natural gas prices low. This is expected to be the case for the foreseeable future. By 2035, shale gas will represent nearly half of all U.S. natural gas production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The low prices are great if you’re a business or consumer, and wonderful if you’re an oilsands developer. That’s because natural gas is the single-largest operational cost for many oilsands projects, particularly steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) projects and other in situ developments that require enormous amounts of the gas to make steam.

In fact, it’s never been so good for them. Gas is about $4.50 per million BTU and oil is at about $106 a barrel right now on NYMEX — that’s a 24-1 spread! Now think about the spread at the height of the 2008 oilsands boom. Oil peaked at $147 a barrel and gas bounced between $11 and $12 per MBTU, giving a spread of 13-1.

So what am I getting at here? Oilsands developers are more profitable than they’ve ever been, and as a result there has been a burst of development activity likely to lead to a sustained boom. (I get into more detail in this story I wrote for MIT Technology Review). I’m also hearing that things are so good that oil companies are starting to throw more money into shale oil development. We’re going down a dirtier path, folks.

Bottom line: a dirty form of natural gas is helping spur development of a dirty form of oil.